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Why the Kevin Hart Oscars backlash is different from other recent public shamings

Despite his best efforts, the continuing controversy around Kevin Hart’s decision to withdraw from hosting the 2019 Oscars has done what he claimed he didn’t want it to do when he stepped down — create ongoing distraction and debate.

The latest debate cycle on social media has come thanks to Ellen DeGeneres’s controversial attempt to convince Hart to resume his hosting gig, which he walked away from in December after backlash arose over homophobic jokes he’d made in years past. The backlash followed Hart’s announcement that he would host the 91st Academy Awards in February, which prompted a wave of outrage as the queer community surfaced a history of comedy routines and tweets in which Hart had repeatedly joked about trying to prevent his son from becoming gay — among other instances of homophobic humor.

DeGeneres and Hart then had a conversation about the controversy, in which both asserted that the people who were angry about Hart’s history of homophobic comedy were “trolls.”

“There are so many haters out there,” DeGeneres told Hart at one point. “Whatever is going on on the internet, don’t pay attention to them. That’s a small group of people being very, very loud.”

DeGeneres also declared that Hart had grown since his homophobic humor from 2012, and agreed with Hart’s own assertion that anger over his past was “an attempt to end me,” and that “Somebody has to take a stand against the … trolls.”

DeGeneres and Hart both portrayed the backlash as being the same type of social media “mob justice” that other prominent celebrities and media figures faced throughout 2018 — most notably James GunnSarah JeongDan Harmon, and Roseanne Barr.

But while it’s tempting to lump all of these incidents together as part of a trend that uses social media as a weapon to manufacture outrage on an increasingly polarized internet, there are several major, if subtle, differences at work between Hart and each of the other public figures who came under fire in 2018 for “comedy” gone wrong. There are also several similarities worth noting — including how the notions of “comedy,” “satire,” and “punching up” versus “punching down” all contributed to different outcomes for each of those figures.

While it’s easy to see Hart’s predicament as a result of internet mob justice, that’s a drastic oversimplification. A “troll” is a specific type of internet abuser who uses callous harassment to target victims, often illogically and with the intent to cause emotional distress. But plenty of internet anger comes from real people who are not trolls — and even though anger on social media often takes a collective shape, not every internet “mob” is the same.

More importantly, this reduction dismisses the real cruelty inherent in Hart’s old comedy rhetoric, while blaming the targets of that cruelty — queer people — for pointing it out. It also overlooks how Hart’s response to being called out made a bad situation worse, wasting what could have been a moment to create more empathy out of pain.

What’s so different about each of these incidents? For one thing, the direction of the “punch.”

Earlier in 2018, former Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn and tech journalist Sarah Jeong, respectively, were each accused of making deeply offensive statements on social media. Their reaction and response gives us a clue to the context at work during each of their respective public “shamings.”

Gunn lost his high-profile job in July 2018 after right-wing trolls and Gamergaters pelted Marvel and its parent company Disney with “outrage” over pedophilia jokes that Gunn had made on Twitter several years earlier, between 2009 and 2012. Then, less than two weeks later, Jeong — who had just been announced as joining the New York Times op-ed staff — was attacked for her long history of irreverent “I hate white people” humor on Twitter.

The ire that swirled around Jeong was deeply intense, and arguably far more widespread than the anger directed at Gunn. While Gunn’s tweets mostly generated outrage among a right-wing minority, Jeong’s tweets also provoked a wider discussion about whether it’s possible to be racist against white people, and the difference between comedy that “punches up” verses comedy that “punches down.”

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